Michael Webber on Energy + Water + Food interdependency

Webber, Michael E. February 2015. Our future rides on our ability to integrate Energy + Water + Food. Scientific American.

Michael E. Webber is deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. His Yale University Press book, “Thirst for Power”, examines energy and water use in the modern world (available October 2015).

A few excerpts, some paraphrased, some verbatim, some from other sources:

This nexus of energy, food, and water is a big mess and the entire system is vulnerable to a perturbation in any part:

  • About 80% of the water we consume is for agriculture–our food.
  • Nearly 13% of energy production is used to fetch, clean, deliver, heat, chill, and dispose of our water.
  • Fertilizers made from natural gas, pesticides made from petroleum, and diesel fuel to run tractors and harvesters drive up the amount of energy it takes to produce food.
  • Food factories requiring power-hungry refrigeration produce goods wrapped in plastic made from petrochemicals, and it takes still more energy to get groceries from the store and cook them at home.
  • drought-stricken Texas and New Mexico have restricted or stopped water use for fracking of oil and gas, saving it for farming
  • Increases in corn cultivation for biofuels production, are likely to lead to increases in nitrate concentrations in both surface and groundwater resources in the United States. These increases might trigger the requirement for additional energy consumption for water treatment to remove the nitrates. Such advanced drinking water treatment might require a 2,100% increase in energy requirements for water treatment –an additional 2360 million kWh annually (Twomey) .
  • The mandate in the US to blend ethanol into gasoline will lead to 3,300 billion liters of irrigation water being used in 2005 (2.4% of US 2005 fresh water consumption) for producing fuel for Light Duty Vehicles (LDV = cars and light trucks). With current irrigation practices, fuel processing, and electricity generation, it is estimated that by 2030, approximately 14,000 billion liters of water per year (10.2% of US fresh water consumption) will be consumed and 23,000–27,000 billion liters withdrawn (20% of US fresh water consumption) to produce fuels used in cars. Irrigation for biofuels dominates projected water usage for cars, but other fuels (coal to liquids, oil shale, and electricity via plug-in hybrid vehicles) will also contribute appreciably to future water consumption and withdrawal, especially on a regional basis (King 2010).
  • As the need for alternative transportation fuels increases, it is important to understand the many effects of introducing fuels based upon feedstocks other than petroleum. Water intensity in “gallons of water per mile traveled” is one method to measure these effects on the consumer level.  The lowest water consumptive (<0.15 gal H2O/mile) and withdrawal (<1 gal H2O/mile) rates are for cars using conventional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel etc. Cars running on electricity and hydrogen derived from the aggregate U.S. grid, which is heavily based upon fossil fuel and nuclear steam-electric power generation, withdraw 5-20 times and consume nearly 2-5 times more water than gasoline. The water intensities (gal H2O/mile) of cars using biofuels from irrigated corn is 28 for consumption (187 x more than gas) and 36 for withdrawal (240x more than gas) to make E85 ethanol (E85). For soy-derived biodiesel, the average consumption and withdrawal rates are 8 and 10 gallons (67 times more than gasoline) per H2O/mile (King 2008).

Meeting the world’s energy needs requires $48 trillion dollars by 2035 according to a 2014 International Energy Agency report.

Energy, water and food are the world’s 3 most essential resources. The interdependence of them on each other is not appreciated. Strains on one can cripple the others. This has made our civilization more fragile than we imagine, and we are not prepared for the potential disaster awaiting us.

Energy, water, and food are interconnected. An abundance of one enables an abundance of the others. But a shortage of one can create a shortage of the others.

With infinite energy, we have all the water we need via desalinization plants, deep wells, and ability to move water across continents. With infinite water, we can build more dams to produce energy and irrigate food and energy crops.

Many of earth’s population centers are being hit by serious droughts, reducing energy from hydroelectric power, and rising costs prevent other kinds of energy plants from being built, drought also affects the ability to grow enough food.  This nexus of food, water, and energy is especially a problem in some of the most troubled parts of the world. Riots and revolution in Libya and Syria were provoked by drought or high food prices, toppling governments.


The article begins with the following, which shows another interdependency.  Climate change and associated extreme weather will cause floods that will shorten the lifespan of dams producing hydroelectric power and the water to irrigate crops:

In July 2012 three of India’s regional electric grids failed, triggering the largest blackout on earth. More than 620 million people—9 percent of the world’s population—were left powerless. The cause: the strain of food production from a lack of water. Because of major drought, farmers plugged in more and more electric pumps to draw water from deeper and deeper below ground for irrigation. Those pumps, working furiously under the hot sun, increased the demand on power plants. At the same time, low water levels meant hydroelectric dams were generating less electricity than normal. Making matters worse, runoff from those irrigated farms during floods earlier in the year left piles of silt right behind the dams, reducing the water capacity in the dam reservoirs. Suddenly, a population larger than all of Europe and twice as large as that of the U.S. was plunged into darkness.

Las Vegas faces a similar problem. Lake Mead is so low that the Hoover Dam may have to stop generating power or less of it, and many farms will be parched downstream. Las Vegas is spending a billion dollars to put in a straw coming into the lake from underneath that might not do much good, according to scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy in La Jolla, California, because Lake Mead could dry up completely by 2021 if the climate changes as expected and cities and farms dependent on Colorado river water don’t curtail their withdrawals.

California is facing a surprisingly similar confluence of energy, water and food troubled:

  • Reduced snow pack, record-low rainfall and ongoing development in the Colorado River basin have reduced the river water in central California by a third.
  • The state produces half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables and almost a quarter of its milk [but won’t if drought/climate change continue to reduce water and groundwater storage continues to collapse, permanently preventing these areas from being used to store water in the future].  Farmers are pumping groundwater like mad; last summer some areas pumped twice as much water for irrigation as they did the previous year, causing the 400-mile-long central valley to sink.
  • Just when more power is needed, Southern California Edison shut down 2 big nuclear reactors for a lack of cooling water.
  • San Diego’s plan to build a desalination plant along the coast was challenged by activists who opposed the facility on the grounds that it would consume too much energy.

Drought and Blackouts (Webber 2012)

There is another risk as water becomes more scarce. We withdraw more water for the energy sector than for agriculture. Power plants may be forced to shut down, and oil and gas production may be threatened.

Our energy system depends on water. About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants. In addition, the oil and gas industries use tens of millions of gallons a day, injecting water into aging oil fields to improve production, and to free natural gas in shale formations through hydraulic fracturing.

Population growth will mean over 100 million more people in the United States over the next four decades who will need energy and water to survive and prosper. Economic growth compounds that trend, as per-capita energy and water consumption tend to increase with affluence. Climate-change models also suggest that droughts and heat waves may be more frequent and severe.

[Webber’s solutions are the usual consume less, waste less, and efficiency. He didn’t have the courage to mention birth control, making abortion free and easy to get, or limiting immigration.  Well, it’s probably too late for that, and in a conservative state like Texas, not the best strategy for holding onto your job… Alice Friedemann at energyskeptic.com] 


King, C.W. King et al. September 24, 2008. Water Intensity of Transportation. Environmental Science and Technology, 42(21), pp 7866-7872

King, C.W. et al. 2010. The Water Needs for LDV Transportation in the United States. Energy Policy, Vol. 38 (2), pp 1157-1167.

Twomey, K.M. et al. 2010. The Unintended Energy Impacts of Increased Nitrate Contamination from Biofuels Production. Journal of Environmental Monitoring 12.

Webber, M. E. July 23, 2012. Will Drought Cause the Next Blackout? New York Times.

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